Eating and bleating their way to success: Goat herd clears land and prevents fire on San Bruno Mountain

Publisher: San Mateo County Times
Reporter: Lizzie O'Leary

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO -- In a wind -- and at an angle -- that might have discouraged most landscapers, Jared Lewis and his staff of 500 relaxed on the flank of San Bruno Mountain on a recent morning. The crew had cleared an acre of weeds and scrub brush from the Juncus-Tank Ravine area, and was poised to clip another swath o fland -- with their teeth.

Lewis's "employees," a heard of Beor and Spanish goats, are part of a three year experiment in plant-species restoration and fire mitigation under the supervision of Thomas Reid Associates, which administers the mountain's Habitat Conservation Pan. They are scrubbing a 5-acre plot of the mountain clean of invasive plants, and at the same time removing fuel for wildfires such as the one that scorched the mountain on July 8.

Lewis and his human partners at Living Systems Land Management follow by reseeding the area with native plant species. As an added bonus, Lewis noted with a smile, the goats provide a natural fertilizer. Unlike human clearing efforts, there is no risk of an out-of-control burn, and the nimble goats can access the mountain's steep slopes much better than mowers.

The goats' double purpose of species restoration and fire prevention is unusual, said Patrick Kobernus of Thomas Reid. "We want to combine and do both," he said, adding that invasive European grasses are choking many of the native plants that serve as a habitat for the mountain's rare butterflies. The goats also are intended to prepare the area -- owned by Myers Development company -- to be donated to the County's parks department one the natural species return.

While animals area a common fire-mangagement device in the Bay Area, Lewis's goats are a first on modern San Bruno Mountain. But according to Sam Herzberg, a senior planner for the County's parks department, the mountain has a history of hoofed travelers. Herzberg said old aerial photos of the mountain show a network of cow paths, probably originating from Brisbane's dairy ranches. In addition, the area was likely once home to herds of roaming antelope or elk.

Herzber and others hope Lewis's goats act like a natural roaming herd -- clearing small patches of land and creating firebreaks in one area, then moving on to the next without overgrazing or eliminating important native plants. Overgrazing has been a concern of environmentalists, particularly in the EastBay, where local groups contend that grazing cattle have degraded the environment.

So far, the response to the goats on San Bruno Mountain has been positive. "Most of the people have been pretty excited about it," said Kobernus.

Doug Alshouse of Friends of San Bruno Mountain noted that in the the wake of the recent fire, residents were particularly receptive to alternative methods of land clearing, but cautioned that the goats are still in a testing phase. "They are one piece of the puzzle of what we would call good stewardship," he said, adding that Friends is currently testing a variety management and restoration tactics, as is Thomas Reid. "We'll know more next year."